Saturday, September 14, 2013
There once was a movie called "Pitch Black"*. For a science fiction horror action adventure movie, it was shockingly well made. It featured a diverse cast of well-written characters, an evolving thrilling plotline, and a unique breed of alien monsters for foes, slowly eating every person. It also created a character named Riddick, played by Vin Diesel, a space outlaw with shiney eyes, a menacing shadow whose purpose in the story never quite becomes clear. Riddick was a great character in that story, whose particular see-in-the-dark powers actually made him a foil to the aliens, who hunted by darkness. Fortunately or unfortunately, Vin Diesel then made a movie called "The Fast and the Furious", turning him into what was supposed to be the next great Hollywood star. The simple SciFi alien thiller then started to change. The next film was the nigh-unrecognizable "Chronicles of Riddick", an absurd space fantasy epic, turning the shifty anti-hero escaped con into some kind of galactic Chosen One, fighting an evil empire of Necromongers. There were planetary invasions, backstabbing side characters, Dame Judi Dench as an Air Elemental, and by the end, Riddick wound up as EMPEROR OF OUTER SPACE.
Needless to say, the Riddick brand didn't quite take off as Vin Diesel or his marketers thought. Really most of his fans liked him because he was tough, ambiguously ethnic, and in the movies could drive like a maniac. Not because he was Space Conan. Don't get me wrong, I kinda liked "Chronicles of Riddick" - though I did see it about ten years after it came out on TNT. I like space opera, especially ones so earnestly silly and out of their minds. But "Chronicles" was a big failure, and Vin Diesel's career has been in limbo ever since. Finally thanks to "The Fast and Furious", "Fast 5", and "Furious 6", Vin Diesel has three blockbuster successes under belt, so he's finally acquired enough clout to start the Riddick brand up again.
This time in "Riddick", we very quickly ditch the Air Elementals and Necromongers, and instead we're back to Riddick being trapped on a desert planet fighting a horde of monsters while dealing with bounty hunters. Essentially "Riddick" is a direct sequel to "Pitch Black", featuring virtually the same story only with far worse characters, far worse writing, and much much less scary monsters. The difference this time is that Riddick is the star from the beginning, this is a movie all about how awesome he is constantly. So its really a mixed bag, I have to say. You have the pieces for what could have been a good space thriller, but its undercut by the fact that the movie has to be all about how awesome Riddick is. Just calm down, he's a cool dude, I get it! Just get his giant dick out of my face, I'm trying to appreciate a movie here.
To be more positive, I do rather like where "Riddick" comes from. Its an R-rated SciFi thriller, with a relatively small story featuring a tight cast with plenty of action, one great gore shot, and Starbuck's tits. I really can't say I hated this movie, I don't regret seeing it, because at least it had an edge, it knew what it was supposed to be. I guess some people might compare this film to last years' "Dredd", which I don't want to do because "Dredd" is a far superior movie. I'd rather compare it to "The Wolverine", another relatively small action movie featuring a badass hero. But that one just felt entirely pointless and lacked any edge - no gore, no nudity, simulated violence, and a confused story that never went anywhere. This one isn't confused. Riddick is on a desolate planet full of monsters that want to eat him, so he gets a club and hits those monsters over the head.
The problem comes, I think, with structure. "Riddick" opens with a half hour long sequence of Riddick surviving in the wastes, turning into some old Fantasy barbarian hero, complete with a cartoon space dog for a sidekick. He's become one with the animal inside him, having what I think was a spirit journey with himself, find that raw reptilian instinct to survive no matter what. Ultimately, however, its not really necessary because by this point I think we've already established that Riddick is an edgy badass who lives by an independent beast psyche, he didn't do any real growing here. And in "Riddick"'s dumbest creative decision, one of the first monsters Riddick fights and defeats, turns out to be the new alien monster that's supposed to fill us with fear in the climax. Thus breaking the cardinal rule of monster movies: NEVER SHOW THE FUCKING MONSTER UNTIL THE END. Worse, it shows us that Riddick can handle these monsters, and thus they are significantly less scary than the aliens in "Pitch Black".
Its only way later that other humans come into the story, and things that should have been mysteries are already spoiled. For example, you know why Riddick called down the Space Mercenaries to come hunt him, when this should have been something you needed to guess about. You know what the monsters look like and how to kill them. You know what Riddick has been up to. The film wisely switches over to the perspective of the hapless bounty hunters trying to catch Outer Space's Greatest Criminal (and former Emperor), but a lot of the possibilities for tension and build-up are ruined.
Worse, these mercenaries are idiots**. When they aren't pissing their pants about scary Riddick is, they do everything they can to make his job easier. The film takes so much time having these supposed badasses praise Riddick you'd think these guys who have fangasm just to have the honor to have their face smashed in by Riddick's gold encrusted fist. The Mercs vary form simply having no personalities to being downright annoying, such as this one super religious punk who angers everybody with his endless prattle about how angels will come save him. Poor Katee Sackoff is now playing a low-rent version of her character from "Battlestar Galactica", just a bitchy chick who is apparently a lesbian hardass, but is utterly hapless in most fights and keeps swooning for Vin Diesel's smooth pecks. The only character I liked was the terrible fake-Spanish mercenary leader, with a hilariously bad accent and hilariously bad lines. This guy was so slimy and awful, he fit perfectly in the kind of trash "Riddick" was trying to be.
Its really such a shame, considering how well-written the cast for "Pitch Black" was, in comparison. Yeah, they were mostly just bodies made to be devoured by aliens, but they were all unique and memorable for the most part, and they served a purpose. The women in that movie was a space pilot pretending to be a strong captain even after she tried to jettison the survivors, thus walking the line between survival and humanity, and an androgynous tomboy who looks up to Riddick as a hero, its well-done stuff. The religious character there wasn't some idiot screaming about Jesus, it was Keith David, this warm complex man of faith, still full of love and belief in Allah while he loses everything in that movie. I'm not saying "Pitch Black" was Shakespeare, it was a damn alien monster movie, but it is what "Riddick" was trying to be. And I am sorry, it missed the mark. Heck, even Riddick's character was far more complex back then. You never really knew where he would stand when it came to heroism, he seemed like just a pure monster, and you could see this situation was really challenging to him. Yeah, he does the right thing at the end, but it wasn't a choice he made easily. Actually no, "Pitch Black" is Shakespeare, fuck it. That's a great goddamn movie.
"Riddick"'s Riddick is just all cool all the time. There isn't any real choice, no threat. He's stronger than David Bautista, he's so full of testosterone that he doesn't have muscles, they're actually extra testicles that move his arms and legs. Sorry, but that doesn't really make for a very interesting movie. "Riddick" is watchable, its sometimes so over-the-top it becomes hilarious, but if this franchise wants to go someplace, we have to stop making these movies as vanity projects for its star. I don't feel like this movie was made for an audience, Vin Diesel made it for himself, so he could admire how awesome and amazing he is. If you love this man because of his overblown ego and badass persona from the "Fast" movies and the "Furious" movies, you'll probably enjoy this, its got all the artistic value of a rap star music video. All Diesel needs is some sluts gyrating over his body... oh wait, "Riddick" had a scene of that too. Sorry, I forgot.
However, at the very least, "Riddick" feels like a movie made out of passion. There's at least the sense that somebody in this project loves what they're doing, if it is just the most blatant masturbation. Its a B-movie, made by people who wanted to make a fun B-movie. And it is kinda fun. So maybe this gets a weird mild recommendation from me. Its a wild ride of overblown stupid bravado and primitive masculinity, its everything that made "Furious 6" utterly hilarious. Its got terrible special effects, its got terrible camera work, its got terrible writing, but with the right mixture of beer and spirits, this could be a very fun ride.
* Hell, I can back further: There once was a movie called "Alien 3". There was a script written by David Twohy for it. Fox rejected it, along with like fifty thousand other scripts. David Twohy took the script, adapted it, and made another, even better movie with it.
** Spoiler time: Okay, the Mercs plan essentially is to drop on the planet, hold up in a small shack, and start hunting Riddick. They realize by landing on the planet, they've given him a spaceship they can use to escape with. So they do a somewhat smart thing by locking their magic energy cells in a metal cabinet, and locking the door with a claymore mine (basic padlocks being passe in the future). It apparently never occurred to the Mercs that they could just hide out either in the sky or in their ship, they have Riddick's only means of escape, so they don't even need to drop down. They could have used this strategy later. They didn't know aliens were coming, but they should have been able to eventually sense Riddick's desperation and just get him to come quietly, thus solving the movie.
Anyway, it gets worse. Riddick breaks into the shack, writes a menacing message in blood on a cabinet, and then the Mercs have to check if he stole the energy cells. One guy opens up the claymore lock after a long build-up of whether it will explode or not. And for once, this movie does something mildly intelligent and doesn't also turn Riddick into a master thief and hacker and Gerard Butler's character from "Law Abiding Citizen". So the lock doesn't explode. However, the Mercs LEAVE THE DAMN CABINET OPEN. They don't even bother to lock the door again! How fucking stupid are you people? Stupid enough that you let Riddick steal your damn energy cells, that's how. Morons!